Strangeness of Vermont

I spent two days in Burlington, Vermont earlier this week, teaching attorneys to tell stories and prepare witnesses and clients to tell stories.

I took a few photographs while I was there that I thought I’d share.

When I arrived in Burlington, I found myself staring at this interesting and slightly creepy building at the end of a road.

Sort of a "Welcome to Burlington. Things are about to get weird."

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Thankfully, they didn’t.

In the bathroom of the conference center where we met and worked, I was greeted by this print.

I’m not sure what you see when you look at this, but given that it was hanging over the toilet, I couldn’t help but see a person standing in pee, which… you know… wasn’t great.

Happily, I only had to stare at it about a dozen times over the course of two days.

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Then I spotted this sign, hanging over the toilet in a Vermont rest area. The water used for flushing the toilets was reclaimed water, so the highway department apparently needed to let those who are fond of drinking toilet water that this particular brand of toilet water is non-potable.

It’s also interesting to note that there were two drinking fountains just outside the restrooms, which means that there must be people who forgo the drinking fountain in favor of the toilet.

I had always assumed that all toilet water - and especially toilet water in highway restrooms - was non-potable, but I guess you learn something every day.

I’ll add that Vermont has some of the loveliest rest areas that I’ve ever seen, but that didn’t make the toilet water any less appealing.

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I had a terrifying Uber right in Florida last night.

I spent about 45 minutes in the back of an Uber last night on the road between Jacksonville International Airport and Amelia Island.

It was almost 2:00 AM when I climbed into the back of the car, so perhaps that’s why things got weird.

My driver was quite the conversationalist and had a lot to say. He was also an avid conspiracy theorist who was anxious to spread his propaganda. Among this many beliefs were these:

THEORY #1

In the 1940’s, the United States began cloning human beings to serve as doubles for any human being who needed to be eliminated or replaced. The most famous of all these replacements:

Michael Jackson

When Jackson’s hair caught fire on a Pepsi commercial shoot in 1984, his face was also horribly burned. The only way for the King of Pop to continue to entertain was for the government to activate his replacement clone, and since the technology was not exact, that is why Jackson’s complexion seemed to change over the years.

When I asked why the government thought it necessary to replace Michael Jackson, the driver said, “Michael Jackson was amazing. The world needed him.”

THEORY #2

The Illuminati controls NASA, which is not actually a space exploration agency but instead is instead a secret bunker-building construction company designing hideouts for the wealthiest human beings for when the apocalypse comes.

His proof: NASA in Hebrew (according to him) means “To Deceive” and the Illuminati like to hide clues in the open.

“Why do they hide clues out in the open?” I asked.

“It’s cooler that way,” he said.

It was disconcerting to think that there are Americans who have been fooled into believing conspiracies like this (and so many more), but here was the most frightening of his beliefs:

Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is a terrible human being because when Donald Trump gave tax cuts to corporations, lots of them gave their employees holiday bonuses but Amazon didn’t. He was working for Amazon at the time at a fulfillment center and wanted the $500 bonus that Trump had tried to put into his pocket.

Up until this point, I had only listened. But with this, I had to speak up. I said something like this:

“I’m not saying Bezos shouldn’t be doing more for workers, but instead of a a tax cut for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, how about just a plain old middle class tax cut? You know, the kind Trump promised during the campaign and then lied about prior to the midterms? Remember when Trump said his wealthy friends were going to hate his plans for taxes? They loved his tax cut on the wealthy. A tax cut for the middle class would give you a lot more than $500 in your pocket, and it wouldn’t be a one-time payment. It would help you every day.”

His response:

“Yeah, but when I’m one of the wealthiest Americans someday like Bezos, then I’m going to love me some of that tax cut.”

The man is 34 years old. He has three jobs:

He drives Uber overnight.
He does nails at his mother’s salon.
He repairs cracked screens on iPhones.

He works three jobs and has a 7 year-old daughter to support, and instead of wanting the promised middle class tax cut, he would prefer $500 in cash and a tax cut just waiting for him when he makes it big.

That was the scariest thing he said all night. He is a man who really believes that tax obligations should be apportioned with the thought that he and everyone else will someday be as wealthy as Jeff Bezos.

He’s not the only one. Again and again, Americans vote against their self-interests with some eye to a future that is unlikely for them and impossible for everyone.

Help middle class families who are living paycheck to paycheck or line the wallets of the ultra-wealthy because some day you might be wealthy, too, and until then, $500 will make you feel good.

Give me Michael Jackson clones and an Illuminati-controlled NASA any day.

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Windows down. Music up.

Driving home alone after performing in Maine last week, I decided to spend the last hour of my four-hour drive with the windows down and the music up. 

Music blasted. Springsteen. Tom Petty. Tesla. The Ramones. Guns N' Roses. The Stones. The wind roared through the car. It was fantastic. 

As I roared down the highway, I looked around, taking note of how others were driving. Searching for my proverbial soulmates. Here is what I noticed:

Almost everyone drives on the highway with their windows up. Actually, almost everyone drives everywhere with their windows up. The vast majority of people travel via automobile in their own climate-controlled bubbles of air and sound.

What a shame. 

Part of this may be generational. When I was first learning to driving, air conditioning was far less prevalent than it is today. In 2017, 99% of all new automobiles came equipped with AC as a standard feature.

But in 1970, only 54% of cars were equipped with air conditioning.

In fact, the first three cars that I owned - all built in the 1970's and driven by me in the 1980's - did not have AC. Instead I drove with the windows down. Allowed fresh air to flow through my car. Offered my musical tastes to the world. 

It was glorious. It still is glorious. 

If you haven't done this in a while, you must. The next time you are driving on the highway or any place of any distance, lower all the windows. Choose some of your favorite music and turn it up. 

I drove for four hours from Maine to Connecticut. For the first three hours, I listened to books and podcasts and stopped for breakfast, but can't remember a dam thing about the drive. It was like every other long, forgettable distance drive.

But that last hour, heading west in Interstate 84, wind roaring through the car as Thunder Road and Satisfaction and I Wanna Be Sedated blasted from the speakers - I remember it well. 

I smile when I think back on that final hour.

And when I finally arrived home, I was energized. When I stepped out of my car, I was almost running to see Elysha and the kids. Part of it was the excitement of seeing them after a night away, but a bigger part was that I was excited and happy and filled with music. 

What a joyous, riotous feeling.   

Escape your climate-controlled bubble. Let the wind mess up your hair. Blast your music in the way you did when you were a teenager and understood the power and importance of song.

Grab hold of a some of that primacy again. 

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Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport is as quirky as it sounds

If you're ever flying into or out of Toronto, you'll probably be flying into Toronto Pearson International Airport. 

But there is another, lesser know international airport in Toronto called Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, and it's an interesting little place for a few reasons.

First, the name: Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. It's named after World War I Canadian flying ace Billy Bishop, who was credited with 72 victories and later trained Canadien pilots during WWII.  

Billy Bishop Airport would be fine. A little odd, perhaps, but named after a war hero, so why not?

But Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport? Is Toronto ever referred to as Toronto City?

The Toronto City are actually a Canadian soccer team (presumably for the 43 Canadiens who can't play hockey), but the official name of Toronto is The City of Toronto, which is still a little weird, but not Toronto City.

Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport.  

Very odd. And more than a mouthful. 

Second, the airport located on an island about 100 yards offshore in Lake Ontario, requiring passengers to take a ferry or a tunnel to get to the airport. When I flew out of Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport two weeks ago, my trip to the airport included a car, a train, a bus, a ferry, and finally a plane.

Quite the epic journey. 

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Third, while I'm sure the airport is occasionally busier than when I was there, it was the first time that I was the only person passing through security at an airport. I couldn't actually find the security checkpoint (and had to ask someone) because there was no line. Just a guy standing beside a metal detector. 

"That can't be it," I thought. But no, that was it. One guy. One metal detector, and me.

You can imagine my surprise when he informed me that I was randomly selected for a more intensive search of my person and belonging.  

Lastly, the airport is so small that there is no restaurant, fast food counter, or even coffee shop on the premises. Instead, the airport offers free bottled water, coffee, soda, and snacks. An actual refrigerator filled with free beverages. A counter lined with snacks of all kinds. Coffee pods, tea bags, and hot water for the taking. 

Add this to the comfortable seating, lovely side tables adorned by small lamps, and the relative quiet of their small, single terminal, and I was actually disappointed when my plane was called. 

"I could write here," I thought. "This could be my new office."

Alas, my time at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport was short, so I only had enough time for one Diet Coke, a phone call to Elysha, and a few email responses before it was time to go. And because the airport is in the middle of the city, jets are not allowed to land or take off so I took a prop plane for the first time in my life.

Once onboard, it was exactly like a jet except a little slower. 

Being in the middle of the city, Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport also offers spectacular views of downtown Toronto. 

Not a bad perk.

When in Brazil, go see Judy.

I met a person in Brazil named Judy. If you ever travel to Sao Paulo and need a fascinating person to guide you, Judy is the person to hire. She is a Canadian who has been living in Brazil for almost a decade after having spent the previous decade backpacking solo in more than 40 countries around the world.

Judy is the only person who I have ever met who has stories that rival mine. For every horrific and unbelievable and ridiculous thing that has happened to me, Judy has a similar story to share.

Unfortunately, Judy is also the worst food describer on the planet. When trying to convince me to try acai, she told me that it tasted like earth. "Kind of like dirt. Gritty."

Despite her terrible description, I tried it anyway and liked it. 

Later, when trying to describe a dessert to a friend, she said, "Have you ever wanted Gummi Bears, except you really wanted a healthier version of Gummi Bears?"

"No," I explained. "No one has ever had that thought in all of human history."

Not only was the description ridiculous, but the dessert turned out to be nothing like Gummi Bears, healthy or otherwise.

These are just two of several examples of Judy's problem. I saw it happen over and over again. The woman has no vocabulary when it comes to food. 

But if you're in need of an entertaining guide while in Brazil and can overlook this one glaring flaw, there might be no better person to hire than Judy. I spent a day walking the streets of Vila Madalena with her, taking in the street art and swapping stories about our lives, and over the course of my week in Brazil, she joined me twice for dinner. I always had a good time when I was with her and learned a great deal about the country in the process.

Of course, Judy's not actually a tour guide. In real life, she's a middle school teacher, but since she's also Canadian, she could probably be convinced to escort you through the streets of Sao Paulo if you needed someone to guide you.

Those Canadians are too damn nice for their own good.    

Observations from a week in Brazil

Brazil was only the second country outside the United States that I visited, so some of my observations may apply to many other places and probably do. But in terms of my experiences, here is a list of notable observations from my recent trip to Brazil:

  • Dessert is a big deal in Brazil. It's eaten after every lunch and dinner. This is not a complaint. 
  • The mall is a serious piece of business in Brazil. Brazilians flock to the mall in droves. They are like American teens in the 1980's when it comes to their affinity for the mall. 
  • The motorcycles in Sao Paulo are insane daredevils. They weave in and out of traffic like it doesn't exist. I'm told that two motorcyclists die each day in the city.
  • Elevator banks lack a central calling button. You press the button on one of the elevators and then watch all three or four, waiting for one to arrive. Many elevators also have an additional door that swings on a hinge before stepping into the car. I have been told that this is a safety door, but I can't for the life of me figure out how it makes the elevator any safer. 
  • Service in Brazil is outstanding. A waiter is standing beside your table for most of your meal.
  • A chair is set aside at restaurants for purses and other bags, because it is considered bad luck to place your bag on the floor. It has something to do with money escaping your bag if it's placed on the ground.
  • There is no Diet Coke in Brazil as far as I can tell. Coke Zero rules the country. 
  • American music (in its original English form) is the dominant form of music played in all public locations.
  • American restaurant and retail chains dot the landscape, including Outback Steakhouse, Starbucks, McDonald's, car dealers, and dozens of stores in the mall.
  • When eating pizza in a restaurant, the waiter serves you a slice and then removes the pizza from the table. When you have finished your slice, the waiter returns almost immediately with another slice. It is slightly unnerving how efficient they are.  
  • I ate in a total of nine restaurants during my visit. I saw one female hostess but no female members of the waitstaff. I am not sure if this is the result of a low sample size or evidence of a demographic reality. 
  • Many houses are built behind walls in much of Sao Paulo. Many of these walls are topped with electrified wire. It is a reminder that despite its beauty, there is still a great deal of poverty in this country. 
  • I am not a fan of shopping of any kind, but the Mercado Municipal in central Sao Paulo turns shopping into art. Stained glass windows and foods of all kinds make it feel as if you are walking through a painting, and the streets outside the Mercado, while slightly wilder than the Mercado's interior, are just as alluring. 


When it comes to Brazil, I am basically an infant.

I've been in Brazil for three days, and in many ways, I can't help but feel like an infant.

I don't speak a word of Portuguese, and the little bit of Spanish and French that I know does me absolutely no good. Wherever I go, I am under constant escort from one or more of the teachers who work at the school that I'm visiting. They put me in taxis and inform the drivers that I know nothing. 

I can't order food for myself (or even read a menu), and even when I see the food, I'm often can't tell what it actually is. 

On top of this, my American dollars are useless here, and the hotel where I am staying is in a less-than-safe neighborhood. As a result, I have been told not to leave the premise unless I am with other people. I can almost see the school where I will be teaching from my hotel, and yet a taxi will be transporting me to the gates every day. 

For a guy who prides himself on independence, it's been strange. I feel as if I should be strapped into a stroller and given a pacifier.   

But on Sunday, I spent the afternoon and evening touring Vila Madalena, a Sao Paulo neighborhood known for its concentration of graffiti art. Beco do Batman (Batman Alley) is an especially popular tourist destination, and from the photos that we took that day, you can probably see why. 

The graffiti was incredible.

I spent the day walking the streets with a Canadian, talking about the graffiti, Brazilian culture, teaching, writing, and stories from our lives.

Later, we joined an Australian and two Americans for dinner. I tried acai for the first time. I dined on Brazilian beef and drank traditional Brazilian alcohol while listening to music and learning about some of the culture from my dinner mates.

I was advised by a friend to try to allow the Brazilian culture to wash over me, and that is what I did on Sunday to great effect. 

There were still moments when I felt like an infant. When it came time to head home, my friend had to put me in a taxi, explain to the driver where I was going, and then took the taxi driver's business card, just in case I didn't get back to the hotel. I felt like a ten year-old boy being sent across the city for the first time.

But still, it was a fantastic day, and even as an infant, I feel incredibly lucky to be here. 

A terrible break in routine

My wife took this photo yesterday morning. I love it so much. 

I'm in Brazil, which means that when Clara woke up, she couldn't go downstairs and see her Daddy, who is either writing, sweeping, or getting breakfast ready for her every morning. Not wanting to wake anyone up but with no one to talk to, she plopped herself down in the hallway to wait.  

I love this. It also breaks my heart. I'm one day into my week long trip and I can't wait to get home and see her. 

Times Square: The place that New Yorkers love to hate

I get annoyed when I hear New Yorkers complain about Times Square, which they seem to do a lot.

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Yes, it’s crowded, and yes, tragically, many of the people crowding the streets are not New Yorkers, so they are not nearly as enlightened as the rest of you. They look up a lot. They pose for photographs in front of things that you find benign and commonplace. They crowd street corners and fail to act quickly when the light changes. They wear colors other than gray and black.

I know. It’s terrible. Inexcusable, really.

Of course, all of those people are bringing dollars to your city. They support your vibrant theater district and fill your hotel rooms and eat in your restaurants and buy your hats and tee shirts. Cities would kill for the kind of tourism that Times Square promotes.

It’s also not nearly as bad as you want us to think you think it is.  

Get over yourselves.

Odd business combinations

I spent the evening at the Latchis Hotel in Brattleboro, Vermont, at a writing and booksellers’ conference. My publicist arranged the accommodations, so I was not familiar with the hotel when I arrived. It turns out that the Latchis, an art deco hotel according to its website, is actually a combination hotel and movie theater, and this unique redesign afforded some interesting architectural features.

For example, a square support beam, about two feet wide on each side, ran through my bathroom from the floor to the ceiling, nearly adjacent to the edge of the bathtub, which required me to walk around the beam in order to turn on the water for my shower, then turn and go back around the beam in order to get into the bathtub.

An odd but memorable feature.

I also had the pleasure of catching the final minutes of The Hangover, a film I very much want to see. Sadly, I only caught the muffled sounds of the film’s audio track emanating through the wall, so following the plot was difficult.

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. The hotel was clean, comfortable, and was equipped with Wi-Fi. And it was just a block from the site of the conference, in the center of Brattleboro, close to many restaurants and bookstores. 

What more could a guy want?

In fact, I found myself wondering if my publicist arranged this room on purpose, perhaps aware that my current manuscript centers on an equally odd combination of funeral home and chicken shack.